I had an opportunity to ask some Seahawks-related questions to prolific NFL writer Doug Farrar, who is a contributor to the Football Outsiders and Yahoo Sports NFL blog Shutdown Corner, among many other things he covers on the league.
Farrar wrote this year’s section on the Seahawks in the annual Football Outsiders Almanac. This prospectus offers a new and interesting take on the league by combining an innovative look at statistics with film study.
And this year’s almanac doesn’t disappoint in terms of stirring up the pot, with the authors picking the popular media choice to win the NFC West, the San Francisco 49ers, to finish last in the division.
Here’s how they think it will go:
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1. Arizona: 9.4 wins, 32 percent chance of Super Bowl contention
2. Seattle: 7.3 wins, 8 percent chance of Super Bowl contention
3. St. Louis: 6.2 wins, 3 percent chance of Super Bowl contention
4. San Francisco: 6.1 wins, 3 percent chance of Super Bowl contention
Basically, the folks at Football Outsiders are not believers in San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith, and actually appear a bit bullish on the Seahawks’ chances to rebound from a poor season.
Thanks to Doug Farrar for taking the time to answer a few questions. And here they are.
(Williams): You mention that Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck hasn’t posted a positive DYAR or DVOA since the 2007 season. Can you briefly explain for our readers what those two stats measure and why they are important. And statistically, what do you project Hasselbeck to do this year? Will we see the Charlie Whitehurst era begin this upcoming season?
(Farrar): DVOA stands for Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average, and this is our primary per-play efficiency metric. Basically, DVOA takes every play of the season and establishes a baseline for performance based on averages. From there, each player and team can be evaluated against that baseline, adding in adjustments for situation and opponent.
With DVOA, the idea is to be more three-dimensional with numbers – if the Seahawks get three yards on the ground against the Baltimore Ravens, that’s much more impressive than if they did it against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Similarly, if that three-yard gain comes on third-and-2, it means more to the team than if it comes in first-and-15. DVOA is expressed as a percentage above or below average.
Defensive DVOA is best when expressed as a negative percentage, because the idea with defense is obviously to stop offensive efficiency. DYAR is a cumulative stat that better expresses performance over a longer period of time, and it’s measured in yardage. Both stats attempt to do for football what Value Over Replacement Player does for baseball.
As far as Hasselbeck is concerned, the issues have been all over the pace, and it’s not entirely his fault. Tim Ruskell’s gigantic whiffs with personnel on the offensive line and at the receiver position affected Hasselbeck’s game to a great degree as it would with most quarterbacks.
You can hope for a Peyton Manning or Drew Brees, who can transcend what’s around them, but that’s exceedingly rare. Pete Carroll has said that in 2009, Matt was trying to do too much, and I think that’s a good way of putting it. In 2008, he was hurt a lot. In 2007, Mike Holmgren wisely realized that he had no running game to speak of, and pulled off a great coaching job with a streamlined, more aerial offense than he generally prefers. That was the last time you saw the Hasselbeck you’d need to see for the Seahawks to do anything worthwhile from a postseason perspective.
The Football Outsiders Almanac projects him to complete 318 passes in 503 attempts in a full 16-game season, for 3053 yards, 18 touchdowns and 14 picks (Yes, we like to get specific). I’m encouraged by the fact that the new front office places a higher value on pass protection and receiver talent. I’m not sure that the Whitehurst era starts in 2010; I think it’s more likely to happen as Seattle’s next quarterback, who could be drafted in 2011, gets with the program. That said, Hasselbeck does present an above-average injury risk at this point.
(Williams): Seattle’s lack of success running to the left end caught my attention. You mention Seattle’s 1.26 Adjusted Line Yards per play on runs to the left end was the second-lowest average in that direction in the history of Football Outsiders charting those numbers. Again, can you briefly explain what that stat measures, and how you believe the addition of rookie Russell Okung at left tackle will help Seattle improve in that category.
(Farrar): Adjusted Line Yards is a stat that we keep for both offense and defense. ALY assigns responsibility to lines and rushers based on the yardage of the play; we assume that if a team’s running backs keep getting killed at the line of scrimmage and are far below average in the kinds of 0-4-yard runs that comprise most of a rushing game plan, but the backs are getting upfield at an abnormally high rate – well, we know better who to credit and who to blame.
Last year, the Seahawks had a lower ALY rate than their average rushing yards, and their second-level yards and open field yards were better as well. This tells us that there was more functional talent in the backfield than there was up front – it’s not a failsafe method, but in Seattle’s case, it can be backed up by game tape pretty easily.
The only NFL team from 1993 through 2009 that was worse rushing around left tackle than the 2009 Seahawks was the 2006 Cleveland Browns. The 2007 Browns drafted tackle Joe Thomas and ranked first in runs around that end.
So, sometimes, it is as simple as getting the right guy in the right place. I’m not sure that Okung will bring the same kinds of immediate dividends, but I’ve been very impressed with him in camp and in the first preseason game. He seems to get the zone concept, and I’m looking forward to seeing more. He can slide, he can hit the second level better than I expected to start, and he’s got nice inline power.
(Williams): Tempo had always been a priority for Mike Holmgren-led offenses when he was with Seattle. So with Holmgren gone, I was a bit surprised to see that Seattle had the fastest-paced offense in the league for a second straight season, and their fourth straight year in the top five. How do you measure this statistic? And from looking at Jeremy Bates’ offense when he was in Denver, do you see this statistic changing this season?
(Farrar): In 2008, when Bates ran Denver’s offense, the Broncos ranked third in Offensive Pace, so I don’t see it as a problem. To be specific about what Pace is for offense and defense, it’s the seconds of game clock elapsed per offensive play, with drives eliminated if they start in the fourth quarter or final five minutes of the first half.
Pace is more about how quickly teams get the play off; and it’s pretty good indicator of a higher or lower percentage of no-huddle or “check with me” stuff in a lot of cases. Even with all of Peyton Manning’s acrobatics at the line of scrimmage, the Colts ran as much no-huddle as any team in the NFL, and they ranked second in offensive pace. With Holmgren, it was more about getting that play in and getting to the line as quickly as possible.
(Williams): Seattle’s defense ranked 29th overall in 2008 and 30th overall last season in total pass defense. With the addition of rookie safety Earl Thomas, a healthy Marcus Trufant and veteran safety Lawyer Milloy potentially starting this season, do you expect those numbers to change this year. If so, why?
(Farrar): It really depends on how much pass pressure they can get, especially with four rushers. Pete Carroll is putting in some different fronts, but you have to assume that the Seahawks are still going to play a lot of Cover/Tampa-2, which gets linebackers in the flats and up the zone.
Having a healthy Lofa Tatupu in there makes a big difference – David Hawthorne did a lot of things well, but he’s not a cover guy at all. You saw this especially in the Vikings game, when their formations really messed him up in intermediate coverage.
Having Marcus Trufant back up to full speed would be a huge help; we just have to hope that 2009 was more about injuries and less about an overall decline. I do believe that Thomas will help with the deep stuff; the Seahawks haven’t had a safety with his range in a good long time. Overall, I’d need to see more consistent pass rush before I’d be ready to sign on with the improved pass defense theory.
(Williams): Your win projections are interesting. The mean projection for Seattle is 7.3 wins, with the team having a 22 percent chance of being a playoff contender and an 8 percent chance of being a Super Bowl contender. I believe Vegas odds makers give the Seahawks an over/under of 7.5 wins. And they also have the third easiest schedule in the league. It appears you are bullish on Seattle’s ability to rebound from a poor, 5-11 campaign last season. True?
(Farrar): Well, if you look at the way they performed on the field, the Seahawks actually were a 2-14 team (in my humble opinion). Three of those wins should have an asterisk. They beat the Rams twice, and the Rams went 1-15 last year. They beat the Lions after being down 17-0 at one point, the Rams’ sole win was against the Lions, and the Rams may have beaten the Lions more convincingly than the Seahawks did.
That said, I don’t think the Seahawks had 2-14 personnel. Generally speaking, teams with quick turnarounds have one thing in common – their players will raise their game when they go from sub-par to above-average coaching. Without turning this into a Jim Mora bashfest, I think the Seahawks do have that going for them. A legitimate 7-9 wouldn’t surprise me.